A video posted online Tuesday by a United States-backed Syrian rebel group shows a fighter firing a TOW missile at what the group says is a Russian helicopter on the ground, destroying the helicopter and possibly killing one Russian Marine on a rescue mission to save the pilots who parachuted out of a fighter jet shot down by Turkey.
The unsettling video, which can be viewed above (courtesy of the Russian news organization RT), was originally posted Tuesday by the Free Syrian Army, one of the largest anti-government militias opposing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad in that country’s ongoing civil war.
While the Kremlin-owned RT notes that confirming the exact model and affiliation of the helicopter is difficult from the video itself, the Russian military has confirmed that it sent two Mi-8 helicopters — similar to the Mi8 pictured below — on a search-and-rescue mission to save the downed pilots, and that one of the helicopters was destroyed and one Marine killed.
But Syrian rebels believed to belong to the Free Syrian Army shelled the rescue choppers, forcing one to land. The video appears to show a rebel fighter mercilessly destroying the helpless chopper on the ground, firing what has been identified in media reports as a TOW anti-tank missile — a missile system manufactured in the United States.
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“TOW” is an acronym for “Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided.”
The Russian Marine killed in the rescue operation — possibly by the TOW missile fired in the Free Syrian Army video — was 29-year-old married father of two Alexander Pozynich of the western Russia city of Novocherkassk.
Pozynich, pictured below in a photo obtained by Russian media outlets from social media networks in that country, was awarded Russia’s Order of Freedom by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian plane and subsequent Mi-8 rescue helicopter were shot down in the Turkmen Mountain region in northern Syria near the border with Turkey. The area is known as a stronghold for the Free Syrian Army — one of the original Syrian anti-Assad groups, comprised mainly of defectors from the Syrian government army. But the terror group ISIS, responsible for bombing a Russian civilian airliner as well as the Paris attacks earlier this month, is not believed to have any presence in the Turkmen region.
One of the downed Russian airmen, Captain Konstantin Murakhtin, was rescued, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. But the other, Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov, was killed — shot by Syrian rebel troops when he parachuted to the ground.
As recently as October, the Russian government said that it did not consider the Free Syrian Army to be a terrorist organization, and therefore, the FSA would not be a target of the Russian bombing campaign in Syria.
Also in October, the news agency Reuters reported that “the CIA, in collaboration with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, recently broadened the number of rebel groups to which it clandestinely delivers weapons including TOW missiles.”
On October 9, BBC News reported that a new shipment of 500 U.S.-made TOW missiles was sent from Saudi Arabia to the Free Syrian Army.
The day before that, October 8, the Free Syrian Army launched an attack on government forces using TOW missiles and other rocket weapons to destroy “15 armored cars, vehicles, and tanks,” the Syrian Human Rights Observatory reported.
In May, according to a CNN report, the United States sent 400 military personnel to Syria to train rebels there in the use of American-made weapons, including the TOW missiles. The purpose of the program was for the rebels to use their training to combat ISIS.
“However, U.S. officials are aware, they say, of the risk that some of the trained fighters could decide to take their weapons and fight the Assad regime which is not the goal of the training,” the CNN report stated.
Russia, which backs the Assad regime, has been suspected of using the war against ISIS as a cover to carry out bombing campaigns in Syria against other anti-Assad rebel groups.
[Image via Free Syrian Army YouTube Screen Capture]